Review – Cindy Sherman

Brief:- In preparation for Assignment Three, we need to say a few words about staged photography. In advertising and cinema you find a highly artificial, constructed form of photography. Often multiple elements are layered in a final composite. Great care is taken with the arrangement of elements to guide the interpretation of the photograph. The term mise-en-scène, simply means ‘putting in the scene’ and refers to the placement of objects in space. Imagine a totally blank, empty studio. You want to create a scene in the studio depicting a small ancient dwelling inhabited by a hermit in the Sinai desert. You’ll need a lot of light to represent the sun. You’ll need a sky backdrop and plenty of sand and sandstone to create the dwellings. You’ll also need to research and find ancient artefacts that would have been used by an ascetic person. You’ll also need a hermit (actor). This is the way a movie is made, but it’s common to advertising and art photography too and is called ‘staged’ or ‘constructed’ photography. Key practitioners are Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman. Jeff Wall goes to great lengths to create what sometimes appear to be ‘documentary’ street scenes that reflect a telling human situation. Cindy Sherman consciously played with the identity representations of women in movies by photographing herself in different female roles. Her later work makes use of prosthetic make-up, costume, props and sets to emphasise the ways women were represented in historic paintings. Take a look around the place you live. In what ways does the place and the objects in it say something about you? You may not have built it, but you probably chose most of its contents, painted walls, carpeted floors, etc. You placed every item in that space. This is personal miseen-scène. In staged photography you’re telling a story, a fiction that may have a connection to something real or true, however staged it is. All movies, plays and fictions, however far they depart from everyday reality, have a kernel of truth in them.

Cindy Sherman (b 1954)

Untitled #98 1982 by Cindy Sherman born 1954Fig. 1. Untitled #98 (1982)

Description of visual elements

Female with short blonde wispy hair. Neck, right shoulder and upper half of right arm bare. Red corduroy shawl draped around the rest of her, her left calf is visible under the shawl. She is sitting in a manner that suggests that she is on the floor. Staring at the camera, looks sullen, unhappy with being viewed, piercing gre/blue eyes. The lighting comes through a window that is immediately in front of her. The shadow of the window frame is a prop, it covers her mouth. The background is dark but there are some visual elements over her right shoulder. I am unable to make out what they are and they include some reflective metal and a flat piece of wood.

My interpretation:- The props are the shawl, the background, which could represent a stage or movie set, and the shadow that appears across her mouth. This is symbolic and represents that women do not have a voice, they are to be shown off for the appeal of the male gaze. It doesn’t matter how talented the female actor is, she is not allowed to be there for herself, but for the male viewer. Red shawl, and the way it is drapped reflects both vulnerability and sexuality. The sex appeal is more important than the represented woman as the shawl is in front of her, and she is vulnerable to how men view her. Her eyes say that she is tired of being watched. She will continue to be there and continue to feel vulnerable. A submissive pose in which the woman has no power. The lighting is very interesting. She i sitting on the floor and yet the shadow of the window frame is apparent nearly at the foot of the photo. This suggests that the lighting is coming through a prop window frame in a studio and the angle suggests that this is in between the camera and subject.


Sherman, C; 2016; Untitled #571 [chromogenic colour print]; ATFig. 2. Untitled #571 (2016)

Description of visual elements

Background of a lake with trees in front and quite close to the woman on the chair. The chair is covered with a white throw with a soft, downy fabric. She is sitting in a laid back manner which also appears elegant. Wearing a full length dress which has red and cream stripes that are vertical in nature. The red striped are satin or crushed silk, the cream are jacquard. She wears a silver silk hair band with a diamante bow. there is a wisp of hair peeking out from under the head band on the left, close to where her ear would be, and also her right forehead.

She has a pearl bracelet on her right arm, which is drapped over the chair, and has four bracelets of various designs upon her left arm. In her left hand she holds the necklace that she is wearing. Her own eyes brows have been shaved off and covered with concealer and she has drawn on eye brows, drawn with a brown kohl. Her eye shadow is pink/lilac and her eye lashes are long, she wears black mascara or false lashes. She wears concealer on her forehead but the wrinkles still come through, and liquid foundation upon her face that’s covered with a light powder. This makes her skin have a smooth appearance. There is a discrepancy in colour and texture between the concealer on her forehead and the foundation upon her face. Her lipstick is a deep plum gloss, and she has a beauty spot on her right cheek, it appears to be natural.

She is very well lit and no part of her is in shadow. The lighting is soft and a diffuser has been used on both sets of lights, unseen in the image, but diagonally in front left and right. The background is slightly out of focus and has soft lighting.

My interpretation:- The African Queen, 1920’s, elegant, style, wealth, opulence, formal portrait?, film set? No – it is a formal portrait. If it were to represent a film set then she would either not be seated on the chair in that environment, or be seated on the chair in a more appropriate environment. Her clothing, confident relaxed posture and jewelry all signify her class and wealth. I can imagine Humphrey Bogart lifting her into a dirty boat and sailing down the river. A constant tension and play of power dynamics that shift between the male and female characters. Both having power in different settings, both being confident and vulnerable at times. A good relay for me between the photo and the film and a reminder that women did have a voice in the movie industry at times, the power isn’t always patriarchal and misogynistic. I particular like this photo because of the style and class, along with the nostalgic relay back to The African Queen.


Figure 1 Sherman, C; 1982; Untitled #98 [chromogenic colour print]; AT: (accessed on 04/06/2018)

Figure 2 Sherman, C; 2016; Untitled #571 [chromogenic colour print]; AT: (accessed on 04/06/2018)

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